The Secret of NIMH (1982)

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Released 14-Oct-2002

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Family Theatrical Trailer
Rating Rated G
Year Of Production 1982
Running Time 78:51
RSDL / Flipper No/No Cast & Crew
Start Up Language Select Then Menu
Region Coding 2,4 Directed By Don Bluth
Studio
Distributor

Twentieth Century Fox
Starring Derek Jacobi
Elizabeth Hartman
Arthur Malet
Dom DeLuise
Hermione Baddeley
Shannen Doherty
Wil Wheaton
Jodi Hicks
Ian Fried
John Carradine
Peter Strauss
Paul Shenar
Tom Hatten
Case ?
RPI $26.95 Music Jerry Goldsmith
Arthur Morton


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)
German Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)
Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.85:1
16x9 Enhancement
Not 16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio Varies Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles None Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

     There comes a time in every parent's career when they finally tire of the typical “rated G” genre that is available and decide that alternatives need to be found. It was during one of these periods, post Disney’s The Lion King and Aladdin, when we felt the desperate need to find some films that were not textbook fairytales; to find stories that didn’t always end with everything being rosy and perfect. We were looking for something that reflected real-life a little more, where actions had consequences and decisions required compromises – that was when we discovered The Secret of N.I.M.H..

     Based loosely on the book ”Mrs. Frisby and the rats of N.I.M.H.” by Robert C. O’Brian, The Secret of N.I.M.H. was Don Bluth and Gary Goldman’s first major foray away from the protective wing of Disney Studios. Originally pitched to Disney and subsequently rejected, Don decided not to take no for an answer and found external backing to produce his film. Requiring over one hundred and twenty people, seventy musicians, sixteen Ambrosian singers, nearly a thousand painted backdrops and a total of one and a half million hand painted drawings, The Secret of N.I.M.H. was completed and released in 1982. This was a mammoth effort that utilized every major advancement in hand painted animation available and produced what is arguably one of the finest examples of the animated art form of its time. It also launched a very successful career that has seen the combination of Don and Gary produce more independent animations than any other independent breakaways from Disney Studios.

     The Secret of N.I.M.H. tells the simple story of a mother's battle to save her son, Timothy (Ian Fried), who is ill with pneumonia and to save her family from the farmer's spring plough. Mrs. Brisby (Elizabeth Hartman) seeks the help of a strange but clever mouse, Mr. Ages (Arthur Malet) who was a close friend of her late husband. Mr. Ages mixes up a medicine for Timothy and warns Mrs. Brisby that her son is very ill and cannot be moved until he has fully recovered despite the up and coming “moving day”. On the way back to her house (a concrete block in the field), Mrs. Brisby is rescued from the farmer's cat by a kindly but bumbling crow called Jeremy (Dom DeLuise), who provides regular periods of comic relief for the little ones. We also meet the most interesting rats of N.I.M.H. as we see them stealing power cords from the farmer's house at night and taking them into the rose bush in the front yard. We slowly learn, as the plot unwinds, that Mr. Ages and the rats of N.I.M.H. are not as you would expect them to be – that is normal rats and mice – but rather they have special talents and gifts that allow them to think and reason as a direct result of the N.I.M.H.'s experiments.

     Inevitably, “moving day” arrives and Timothy is still not well, so Mrs. Brisby is forced to seek help from the Great Owl (John Carradine) who advises her to see the prophet Nicodemus (Derek Jacobi), the leader of the rats of N.I.M.H. So, Mrs. Brisby makes her way to the centre of the rose bush where we find the rats have built an entire city, complete with lights and food storage and a great council where they are actively debating the need to move away from the farmer and to make a life of their own. It turns out that Mrs. Brisby is very well-known, thanks to her late husband who was instrumental in helping the rats to escape from N.I.M.H. (The National Institute of Mental Health) as we find out. The rat council agrees to help and that night they rig up a very complex contraption designed to move her entire house to a safer part of the field where it will never need to be moved again. Meanwhile, Mrs. Brisby is captured by the farmer's son whilst helping the rats to drug the farmer's cat, Dragon and luckily overhears a conversation that N.I.M.H. are coming the next day to exterminate the rats. The resolution of these three situations I’ll leave as a surprise to the viewers (SPOILER ALERT: highlight with mouse to read) except to say that the rats, Mrs. Brisby and her family are eventually safe thanks to a little magic.

     The Secret of N.I.M.H. should definitely be a part of every family's collection as it will be watched over and over again. It is also a fine example of the animated art form at its most spectacular, re-affirming that involved, detailed environments can be achieved without the need for computer generated images. It is a pity that much of this incredible detail is lost due to a poor transfer.

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Transfer Quality

Video

     All-in-all, I was very disappointed with the video presentation of The Secret of N.I.M.H. when compared to the US R1 version and I recommend any interested reader to check out the R4 vs R1 section for more details. This was very unfortunate as what we have delivered here is a world first - NIMH in its original theatrical framing.

     The main feature is presented in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 and is not 16x9 enhanced. This is the original theatrical aspect ratio, restoring some of the lost side information and restoring the letterbox framing. Unfortunately, this particular version is provided with an inferior transfer that lacks the detail and vibrancy of the US release.

     The presentation is very soft, bordering on blurry (for example at 10:35), especially when compared to the much sharper US R1 version. The detail is also lacking and as a result you miss out on significant amounts of exquisite detail in the animation and backgrounds. There is practically no background noise present but there is some film grain, which is consistent with the age of the film. Both the black levels and the shadow details are very good, as is the corresponding white level. In keeping with almost all multi-layered cel based animation, there is some variability in light intensities from frame to frame but this is well controlled in this feature, especially considering that some scenes, such as Mr. Ages laboratory, used up to 96 layers! The colours, all 600 of them, were passable but fell short of the vibrancy that is present in the US R1 version.

     I did not spot any obnoxious MPEG artefacts and neither did I spot any aliasing which I think was completely eliminated as a result of the overall softness of the image.

     Present in abundance though, are numerous film artefacts ranging from the usual white flecks (6:36, 44:55) and black flecks (57:43, 59:34) to some blue flecks (30:09), scratches (74:08), vertical stripes (74:39) and some minor shadow marks, for instance around Jeremy (31:48). These were never overly distracting except for a few identified above and most are typical for film stock of this age. There is also some minor telecine wobble present but it was never severe enough to become distracting.

     MGM have decided that even just copying the existing subtitles from the US R1 version would have been too much effort and obviously not justified for the Australian market. There are no subtitles to be found on this release.

     The feature is contained wholly within a single layer so there is no RSDL change present.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

     The English audio track of this feature makes spectacular use of all the channels and integrates beautifully with the on-screen action, completely immersing the viewer in the world of ”the rats of NIMH” without ever drowning them. This is not a modern, loud and aggressive 5.1 mix. Rather, this is one of the best examples of how good a Dolby Digital 2.0 surround encoded soundtrack from the 80s can sound. For what this is, the audio was perfect.

     I primarily listened to the default English Dolby Digital 2.0 surround-encoded track and sampled the German and Spanish language tracks. In comparison to the primary track, which utilizes the surround capabilities extensively, the German and Spanish Dolby 2.0 mixes were fundamentally mono in nature – lacking both the depth and immersion of the English soundtrack. Aside from the pitch difference, there is very little difference between the R4 and R1 English track.

     The dialogue was clear and distinct at all times even when pronouncing some of the more unusual names. The complete lack of subtitles however, means that if you do miss one of them then you’re out of luck. The audio sync is also surprisingly good considering two things; (a) this is an animated feature, and (b) most of the characters are non-human. Many animated features in this category have very unrealistic approximations to any type of lip sync; that is not the case here.

     The music is, in a word, gorgeous and really carries the feature without ever over-enveloping it. The wonderful score, composed by Jerry Goldsmith, orchestrated by Arthur Morton and performed by The London National Philharmonic Orchestra is superb to say the least and supports the on-screen action right through from the beginning to the very end. One very interesting aspect of this animation is how the music and song (singular) are so well integrated into the main feature without ever becoming part of the foreground. That’s right, there is not a single case of any character, anywhere, inappropriately or otherwise, breaking out into a song. If that is what you want then there is plenty of other titles out there that can provide this - The Secret of N.I.M.H. is not one of those types of animations. There is in fact only one song with lyrics, ”Flying Dreams”, beautifully sung by Sally Stevens whose bewitching voice floats in the background as Mrs. Brisby tends to her sick son Timmy. ”Flying Dreams” is also credited to Jerry Goldsmith and Paul Williams.

     The surround channels are active almost all of the time, helping to immerse the viewer in the highly detailed and complex world on-screen by providing support for various effects, ambience and of course the orchestral music. This is a wonderful example of how good a Dolby 2.0 surround-encoded track can sound. Never once did any of the channels inappropriately call attention to themselves. The illusion was, for all intents and purposes, perfect.

     The subwoofer was very much alive and extremely well integrated providing just the right amount of deep bass energy where appropriate. It is very unusual to find bass this deep and this balanced in a 2.0 surround encoded feature – I’m very impressed.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

Reviewer Dummy Spit

     Today you get an extra extra, direct from the reviewer.

    There are numerous occasions where a title is released without any real valued-added extras such as Commentaries, Making of … specials and other tidbits of information uniquely relevant to the feature due to the difficulty in getting the necessary people to both have the inclination and to provide the time and effort – namely the directors, actors and production staff. This is not the case here. Don Bluth and Gary Goldman have both clearly indicated that they would be very willing to record a commentary for The Secret of N.I.M.H. and to develop some meaningful extras. They have clearly demonstrated in other endeavours that they would be able to bring a wealth of animation knowledge and experience together in a how-to or making-of production. They also have plenty of reason to do so, as The Secret of N.I.M.H. holds a special place in their hearts, being their first independence statement after leaving Disney studios. Therefore, I conclude that the only reason we do not have any extras of any significance on our release, or any others for that matter, is due to lack of interest on behalf of the studio United Artists and the distributor MGM. Shame on you UA and MGM - we deserve better.

    Update 11/09/2002: I just received a response from Don and Gary regarding this issue and this is what they had to say:

"We have not been involved with any new mastering process of the film. Though we would love to be. The film deserves a brand new mastering in 1:1.85 format with filmmakers comments and other goodies. Actually the film would probably do well as a re-release to the big screen. We just can't convince the powers-that-be at MGM/UA. Thanks for writing. Regards."

    So if anyone feels so inclined, please let MGM/UA know that you would like to see this too.

Main Menu

     It’s a main menu, it’s static, it has buttons and you can play the main feature. It’s also much uglier than the US R1 equivalent main menu.

Theatrical Trailer (2:20)

    Presented in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and not 16x9 enhanced. It’s a theatrical trailer - what more can I say? It’s not really an extra.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

     This is a tough one indeed. For the first time since its release in 1982, The Secret of N.I.M.H. is now available in, or very near to, its original theatrical aspect ratio on DVD. You would think then, that with our superior PAL formatting and OAR the winner would clearly be the local product. Well, not quite - it goes much deeper than that.

     Let me first highlight some important background regarding the aspect ratio, especially in the context of the Original, Theatrical and Intended aspect ratios. When this film was originally theatrically released it was shown at the then very typical 1.85:1 ratio, and this was the only time that the film was ever available in that form. Since then, all the video and DVD versions have been released in a 1.33:1 Pan & Scan format taken from an open matte source. However it is not quite as simple as that and the plot does indeed thicken. In actual fact, The Secret of N.I.M.H. was filmed natively at 1.33:1 and was soft matted to 1.85:1 in the theatres by covering up the top and bottom of the frame. The earlier video and DVD releases were then Panned & Scanned from this original fullscreen presentation, losing some of the side information but restoring a lot of the top and bottom information (very similar to what was done with the Harry Potter Fullscreen release).

“Actually, we shot N.I.M.H. at 1:1.33. It was projected in the theatres at 1:1.85, clipping the top and bottom." and "MGM/UA did the Master transfer without us. Go figure ... Regarding the choice to pan & scan ... Remember, that the extreme left and right sides of the frames did not show the complete 1:1.33 image, there was some cut-off ... We actually tried to get them to adjust the framing to show the entire frame, but we received the (broken record) argument that the video audience wants to see their monitor screens "full" of image.”, Don Bluth & Gary Goldman.
Finally, that leads us to the intended aspect ratio - which Don and Gary recently confirmed in an email is meant to be 1.85:1.

     I compared this release at length to the US R1 version and can report that what we have in R4 is a release that restores the lost side information, but at the expense of a significant amount of the top and bottom. Is this the best version? Well, had it been a good, clean, detailed 16x9 enhanced transfer I believe the answer would have been a resounding 'yes', however I feel that there are just too many things wrong with the local R4 release in comparison to the US R1 release to say this. For starters, the image is very soft, almost blurry and as a result much of the tremendously fine detail is lost from this extraordinary animation masterpiece and the colours are restrained and lack vibrancy and saturation.

     Now before you, the site's loyal users and my fellow reviewers take me out to be shot, I leave you with some evidence that warrants closer examination. The following images are comparisons of the framing between the local R4 release and the US R1 release. (obviously ours is the widescreen aspect ratio). If you look very closely (you can click on the small animations which link to larger versions, each around 250kb), you will notice a number of things: (i) you can see exactly how much of the picture is lost/included with each particular framing; (ii) you will notice the differences in detail (look at the water wheel closely or their faces) and (iii) you will notice the difference between the colour vibrancy and saturation. Now ask yourself which one do you prefer? No, I don’t need an email telling me - if you feel so compelled, please add a comment.

Comparison of frames at 05:28 Comparison of frames at 11:02 Comparison of frames at 40:54 

    The R4 version of this DVD misses out on;

    The R1 version of this DVD misses out on;

     As to which version to buy, I leave that decision up to you. Personally, I want to see both the theatrical release and the open matte presentation, complete with extras and a director's commentary please. I suspect though, that if this were to happen it would only be via the Criterion collection and thus NTSC.

Summary

     The Secret of N.I.M.H. is a wonderful film suitable for both children and adults that makes for a welcome change from the steady, fairytale formula diet of Disney and their imitators.

    The video quality is only passable, yet it still manages to demonstrate the genius and talent that is Don Bluth and Gary Goldman.

    The audio quality is excellent for an animated title, making extensive use of the surrounds and subwoofer.

    The lack of extras is solely the fault of the studio and the distributor (United Artists and MGM) as the directors have very clearly indicated that they would love to add a commentary and other extras to this feature.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Michael S Cox (to bio, or not to bio?)
Wednesday, October 09, 2002
Review Equipment
DVDPioneer DV-S733A, using Component output
DisplayJVC Interiart Flat 68cm Display 16:9. Calibrated with AVIA Guide To Home Theatre. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with AVIA Guide To Home Theatre.
AmplificationDenon AVR-3802
SpeakersFront LR - NEAR MainMast, Center - NEAR 20M, Surround LR - NEAR Spinnaker DiPoles, Rear LR - NEAR MainMast-II, Subwoofer - NEAR PS-2 DiPole

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Comments (Add)
one of the best kids films ever made - orangecat (my kingdom for a decent bio) REPLY POSTED
Pan & Scan? - Simon O'Connor (I wouldn't suggest reading my bio) REPLY POSTED
Got a problem with Jerry Goldsmith? - Anonymous REPLY POSTED